All Articles Leadership Management Overcome social distance with empathy in leadership

Overcome social distance with empathy in leadership

Why social distance in the time of coronavirus can be overcome with empathy in leadership

5 min read


Overcome social distance with empathy in leadership

Alex Azabache/Unsplash

Sign up for our daily leadership news briefing today, free.

Organizations large and small are being forced to adjust rapidly as cases of COVID-19 spread. If you are in a leadership position at one of these organizations, the pressure is on to help people find direction amid intense uncertainty.

The term “social distance” is uttered constantly these days as government edicts try to separate people from each other and, hopefully, from their germs. It’s one thing to make people stand or sit a prescribed distance apart. However, leaders have to get closer to the inner emotions of employees than ever before. Empathy in leadership is the way to unify people, whether they are six feet, six states, or 6,000 miles apart.

Crisis leadership demands a blend of how to be and what to do. 

How to be a crisis leader

There are five key components to being an effective leader in crisis situations, says Madeline Dessing of Korn Ferry: Calmness, confidence, courage, resilience and empathy. All matter, but empathy has a unique role in strengthening the resolve of people who feel near a breakdown state.

An empathy story

Dessing shares the example of a leader she has worked with as an executive coach whose typical style is a no-nonsense “straight talk” approach. He has a sharp focus on business matters but also sprinkles humor and jokes into his interaction style. He has struggled, though, to reveal his personal side. As the coronavirus pandemic began to directly affect his business, he arranged a call for his leadership team. 

Overcoming his hesitation to be personal, he talked about his daughter, a lung-transplant survivor in her 20s. She’s living by herself, trying to remain protected from potential infection. Being courageous enough to be vulnerable wove a sense of unity between him and his staff in a way that wouldn’t have been as likely without his willingness to peel back his businesslike outer persona. 

What to do when a crisis overtakes the day-to-day

Steve Newhall of Korn Ferry lays out four keys to how a crisis leader should take on the mantle of guiding employees through the unexpected once a vision has been defined: Communicate, act, seek clarity and maintain simplicity. 

Why vision matters

It’s human nature, especially for leaders who have worked their way up the ranks by mastering details and being willing to get into the weeds, to jump headfirst into the to-do lists of crisis management. A to-do list without a vision, though, is a sure way to lose time, money and morale.

Newhall shares how to winnow down a complicated vision to one that may actually stay in people’s heads and inspire them.

  • Complicated: Keeping our people, our clients and our families safe. Acting with impeccable social responsibility and focusing on ways to allow us to thrive in a new normal as soon as possible. 
  • Simple: Keep people safe and keep the lights on. 

One organization’s crisis leadership example

Unilever is a giant consumer goods company, with 155,000 employees, that has products in 190 countries. Its CEO, Alan Jope, faced a challenge in communicating clearly to those employees how to take action to keep each other and the company’s customers safe.

The solution? A list of five “must nots” and four “musts.” 

“Now, more than ever we need to stay calm, be resourceful, and do what we do best: focus on supporting each other, meeting the changing needs of our consumers, and on serving our customers,” said Jope at the end of the announcement. 

A bias to action matters

Empathy and decisiveness do not oppose or repel each other. Act with empathy, but whatever you do, act in times of crisis, advises Newhall, citing Winston Churchill: “I never worry about action, but only about inaction.”

The Morrison’s supermarket chain in the UK did something that may sound surprising from an economic standpoint but made future action and goodwill possible: The chain paid its small- and medium-sized suppliers in advance so they can be less worried about cash flow.

Leading with purpose grows out of empathy

Why would Morrison’s pay those suppliers when the chain was itself facing uncertainty? Perhaps someone at the top had the ability to understand the anxieties of a business needing to stay afloat. Perhaps a great leader understood that the people who feed others need themselves to be fed.

Being fed is not only a physical thing involving meals. It’s an emotional nurturing involving someone who starts by listening, who can make themselves vulnerable and put themselves in an employee’s shoes.

This is a time in our world of unrest and uncertainty. It is a time that calls for leaders, who sometimes attain their positions buoyed by charisma and determination, to show their human side in an unprecedented way. 

If you are in charge, what do your people need to hear from you to know you are scared, too? Then, what do you need to say to unify them with purpose and courage?

(Concepts in this post are adapted from “Leading in a Time of Crisis,” a Korn Ferry webinar.)


Paula Kiger edits SmartBrief’s nonprofit sector newsletters and co-manages @SBLeaders on Twitter. She worked extensively in Florida’s quasi-governmental children’s health insurance program that became a national model, has served as a United Nations Foundation Shot at Life Champion leader, has proofread professionally and has extensive social media experience. You can find her at her blog Big Green Pen, on Instagram, at LinkedIn and on Twitter.

If you enjoyed this article, sign up for SmartBrief’s daily leadership news briefing, among SmartBrief’s more than 200 industry-focused newsletters.